The man and his nephew rode for two days in the old car out into the desert on Highway 93 north from Las Vegas. They took barely any breaks aside from stopping off for the night in a Best Western along the way. The man told the truth to the hotel clerk, who’d eyed him suspiciously: They were on the way to a camping trip for the boy’s thirteenth birthday. The clerk, older, with thick glasses and thinning white hair, shrugged and handed over the room key before wishing the boy a happy birthday.
Now, the man turned the car off the road as the sun passed over the horizon of the desert that January evening. The red mountains turned from beautiful to ominous and looming in the fading light, and the radio turned to static. He put a CD in the car stereo and adjusted the volume. The boy watched his movements, but didn’t say anything. Unlike most children his age, he was quiet. He looked tense – as tense as a thirteen year old could – and bunched up in the chair, but he didn’t say anything.
Looking over him in the fading light, the man saw in the boy’s face unmistakable likeness to his father. Like the father, the boy had curly black hair and hazel eyes, the same gap in his front teeth. There was a sharpness in his eyes, observation that took in more than the boy would say. The man wondered if the boy had an idea of what was going to happen out there. Given the boy’s clenched jaw and right leg that never stopped shaking, he thought yes. The man thought that the nervousness was understandable, especially given the details of the boy’s dream. Part of him wished that the boy would ask him questions, but most of him dreaded trying to give the boy answers and was glad that he had no questions to ask.
The man turned the car further down the paved road and, at a small sign that said “Reverie,” took a left turn down something that was barely more than a wide dirt path. The boy looked up into the sky. The dome light in the car flickered. Reflexively, the man reached up and tapped it. The boy continued looking into the sky and opened his mouth to say something. The man looked over, but the boy had decided against it. The man reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder. The boy’s attention, though, was fixated on the sky.
The dream went like this: A large form descended from the sky. The shape of the thing was uncertain, but it appeared to be made of the fronds of a fern and possessed something that resembled wings. Its shape contorted and it appeared that beaks grew and receded into its body at random. The wings did not appear to flap – the body of the thing moved by some other means. As it descended, the boy felt a chill fall down upon him, followed by the unmistakable feeling that he was about to vomit. He held himself together, there in the mountains in which the dream took place, and grasped the stone object that was in the middle of what looked to be a crater.
The thing descended and a multitude of green eyes appeared underneath its dark form. They reminded him of cats’ eyes. They shot around, taking in its surroundings and then landed on him. It stopped moving about twenty feet above him. The boy finally noticed the lights in the sky. They reminded him, in the dream, of the light shows that he’d attended with his father in the local observatory.
The thing hovered in the sky and the word “Essence” exploded into his mind, deafening him. He reached up to his ears out of reflex, looked at them, and saw they were coated in blood.
Several hours passed as the car made its way along the Reverie path, maintained in the desert by others like them. They fought a near-constant battle to keep it from being swept away in high desert winds or in the rare desert flash floods. During this leg of the journey, as they passed through lands federal and public, the man kept an eye on the instrument balanced precariously on the dashboard. It resembled a Geiger counter, one of the models with a probe. This device’s probe was against the window and the device’s window showed not numbers, but images. For most of the journey, the needle remained close to the image of the faceless man, though once they had turned on the Reverie path, the needle crept toward another image: something that looked like a cross between an intricate fern and a flying bird.
The needle drew to the border of the image and the man turned off the dirt road, to the right. They were now on rocky ground. The car handled itself well enough. Rocks pinged off the undercarriage and dust caked the windshield. Judging by the needle’s position, there wouldn’t be too much further to go. The night sky, from what the man could see through the windshield and windows, was a mishmash of stars and colors: The deep views of space that one could see where things got thin. He slowed the car down and came to a stop. The needle was now on the image of the flying thing. The boy looked at the face of the device and said, “That’s the thing from my dream.”
The man took a deep breath and nodded. He picked up the device, disassembled it, put it in its case, and said, “Go ahead and stretch your legs. I have to set up camp.”
The boy opened the car door and hopped out. He closed the door behind him without slamming it, and the man smiled. Slamming doors was a pet peeve of the boy’s father. He turned off the radio, then the car, and got out himself.
His sister-in-law took it the hardest. She’d come from a family that hadn’t been as fortunate (or chosen, or blessed, or any number of other stabs in the dark) as the man’s. Her sister, uncle, and several cousins had not come back from their rituals. She had fought against her son taking part, scared beyond the point of willing to admit that she thought there was something in her blood that disappointed the things from beyond. The truth was, the man knew, no one had any idea what it was that kept some of them on this world and others disappearing. There were details at the ritual site – sometimes blood, sometimes hair, sometimes not a single trace except for a small item of clothing or accessories left behind – but nothing that gave them an idea of what the things wanted.
Being a man of a certain bent of mind, he thought that they were, ultimately, understandable and explainable. Others had attempted to get to the bottom of their existence. The prevailing theory was that they were special – somehow – and that these things had chosen to communicate with them at the point where the logical mind was quietest: Dreams.
His brother told him about the boy’s dream and asked him to take him into the desert, to Reverie, and see him through the ritual. Throughout the conversation, especially as the man recounted the boy’s dream, his voice catching on the blood streaming from the boy’s ears, his sister-in-law stayed out of the room, busying herself rearranging things elsewhere in the house.
The man thought about saying that they should refuse the call. Just to see what happened. Then he looked at the anxious expression on both his brother and his sister-in-law and realized that there was not a chance that he would broach the subject of using his nephew as a guinea pig. He relented and agreed.
An hour later, well after darkness had taken hold, the man sat in a folding chair outside the large blue tent he had set up on the hard-packed ground. He glanced from the small fire to the boy, who was watching the stars. The man followed the boy’s gaze and, off in the western distance, just over the mountains, saw a hint of green in the sky. He had left his watch in the car. The ritual began in a time without watches, and it was always assumed that being aware of things outside one’s immediate environment could negatively impact the outcome. The man thought it was useless superstition, but was not confident enough to buck the trend. He prodded the fire one last time, ensuring that it had caught, and stood up.
The boy looked back and the man nodded. The man walked to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and took out the boy’s backpack. His pin – a book with “To Thine Own Self Be True” on its cover – fell off the front of the pack and the man placed it back on. He grabbed a couple of water bottles from the container and closed the trunk. He returned to the boy and handed him the pack and the water and said, “Keep your jacket on. It’s cold at night, here.” He pointed toward the mountains. “Two miles away, the ground starts rising toward the mountains. Those are the foothills. You’ll keep on west – just follow the light in the sky. Once you have to climb, climb. Climb up, always heading west, until you come to a circular, level area. In the middle, you will see a dais. You will sit there until the time comes. I will come for you in the morning.”
The boy looked out toward the mountains. “What happens if I get lost?”
“You won’t,” said the man. “No one gets lost. This is important, and that which you saw in your dreams will guide you until it is time for you to meet.”
The boy turned back to the man. His eyes were moist, but he kept himself from crying. The man could guess that the boy was going to say that he was scared, so he knelt down – he didn’t have to kneel too far, the boy was tall for his age – and hugged him. They closed their eyes and the boy said, “The thing – it felt horrible in my dream.”
“All things we do not understand are horrible until we face them,” said the man. “I went through this, the same as your parents, and our parents before us.” He broke the embrace and stood again. “You’d better get going. You have a journey.”
Later that night, the man stood by the fire. He looked to the west. At first, he kept his attention focused on the boy’s retreating figure, walking toward the mountains. Then, eventually, the display in the sky drew his attention upwards. What originally appeared to be a faint green shimmer, almost as if someone was flashing a large spotlight into the sky, had become a multicolored mass, shot through with green, red, purple, and blue. It stood out like a bizarre oil painting on black canvas, something that was in between styles and reflected nebulae more than an Earth-bound image.
Long after the boy disappeared from sight, the lights above the mountains – above the dais, the man knew – grew in intensity. The man had the theory that by watching the lights, they could begin to understand the things that caused them. He brought out the notebook he had packed and began making notes about the lights’ flickering, their colors, whether or not there was lightning, and how fast the mass grew.
Eventually, after the fire had begun dying down and tendrils of light snaked their way down from the sky into the mountains, the man knew it was time to sleep. With those tendrils came the ritual and the being, and there was nothing he could do for the boy. A soft keening filled the air, as if a siren called from the mountains and the man could not suppress a shiver. Not for the first time, he wished that he understood the things that called them into the mountains.
He woke just before daybreak and looked to the west, reflexively. Of course, nothing was there aside from the rapidly-brightening sky. Dawn’s light broke through the darkness and if there had been any presence in the sky before then, it had left long before. That morning was cool and crisp, though by the time he had made coffee over a small fire, it had warmed up substantially. He left a note in the camp, saying that he was going for a climb in the mountains and would return, just in case anyone saw the camp and wondered if it was abandoned.
Well after daybreak, he walked into the foothills and climbed his way up the red rocks in the mountains. His pack weighed him down, but he was smart enough to know that losing a first aid kit and emergency supplies was not worth the comfort of an unencumbered climb. He felt the red rocks under his hands, remembered this path from when he was a child, and thought back – briefly – to what had happened when it was his time at the dais.
Most of his memories of that night were of a great, heavy pressure in his mind. Flashes of something utterly alien as it stood in front of him, towering in the sky, horrifying in its otherness. Its spongy skin reminded him of the foam that you saw on the shore as the tide washed in and out. It had the shape of a man, but the details were off, like it was caught in a crystal and the only things that could be seen were warped and fragmented details. Eyes that shifted position. A mouth that rotated along an axis. Some kind of clothing that shifted colors; maybe it wasn’t clothing at all. Perhaps, the man considered, and not for the first time, this was just a projected image that the thing wished to show him, an attempt to create a bridge between his mind and its own, in order to communicate. He did not remember many details, but he did remember the probing at his mind, the feeling that something was there, poking at the folds of his brain, lapping at his thoughts, and even prodding at the organs in his body. He did not know how long it lasted, and could not remember if he had communicated with the thing, but only recalled his godfather, his own uncle, arriving in the clearing the next morning, seeing him, and smiling broadly before giving him a hug. The man looked forward to giving the boy the same smile and a broad hug.
Maybe, on the way back, he could treat his nephew to a hefty meal at that diner they’d passed on the north side of Las Vegas. The man had caught a glimpse of comfortable-looking booths, friendly-looking staff, and a warm clientele. That would be a nice way to cap off the boy’s birthday weekend, he thought.
After some time, he cleared the rocks and looked down into the small, circular ritual site with the dais. He expected to see the boy down there, possibly sleeping, possibly staring up expectantly, with a changed look in his eyes. Instead, the only thing he saw was the boy’s backpack laying crumpled on the ground. The man climbed down next to the dais. It bore no marks that indicated what may have happened the night before and the ground was smooth, save for a few shoe prints that, as far as the man could tell, matched the boy’s shoes. He walked to the backpack and picked it up. On the outside was that small pin shaped like a metal journal on which was printed “To thine own self be true.”
The man put the bag down on the ground and looked into the cold and featureless blue sky.
Two days later, he pulled up to his brother’s house. His brother and his wife opened the front door and stood on the front steps, between the two shrubs that flanked their small porch. They looked at him in the driver’s seat of the car but, he thought, they were looking for their son.
He took his time getting out of the car. When he stood out of the driver’s side door, he held in his right hand the crumpled backpack. He said nothing. His brother opened his mouth and closed it. His brother’s wife took a rattling breath and disappeared back inside. His brother watched her leave into the darkness of their home and then sat down on the porch steps and hung his head.
Aaron Simon lives in Portland, Oregon with his dog, Barry, and a really nice window that looks out on a really nice tree. When he’s not being distracted by that tree, he writes, reads, and develops crippling addictions to things like collecting records.